The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is an iconic race, one that encompasses the spirit of endurance and grit. The race will cover over 1000 miles of travel, through gale force winds, temperatures as low as negative 50 degrees, and whiteout blizzards. The teams are built up of a musher and 16 highly trained Alaskan Huskies. Each dog will have trained for the competition for years, working day in and day out to build up the skills needed to complete the challenge.
The race covers 1000 miles, with a starting point at Willow, Alaska and an ending point in Nome, Alaska on the Bering Sea. Each team is built up of 17 highly trained athletes, 16 dogs and one human, which will pull a sled weighing up to 450 pounds. The race itself, will take up to 12 days to complete and only the strong will complete the journey. Each year will see a number of teams fail to complete this harsh race, some drop out completely, while other teams will be forced to drop team members along the way, due to injuries and exhaustion. To understand the demands placed upon these dogs, you have to understand how hard they train for this race.
The Alaskan Husky is a dog bred for one purpose, to pull a sled. And not just for fun, they are bred to be able to endure long laborious journeys. The Alaskan Husky is actually a mongrel, the original sled dogs were either Siberian Huskies or Canadian Inuit Dogs. But over the years, breeders looking for ways to improve the strength and endurance of sled dogs started to interbreed the dogs with breeds, such as German Shepherds and German Shorthair Pointers. All in the hope of creating a bloodline that could master the harsh environment they lived in. The final result would become known as the Alaskan Husky, a dog that is world renowned as the most efficient sled dog.
The average sled dog will start its life as an athlete at the young age of nine months. And their careers can last as long as eight to nine years. Most dogs are race ready by the age of two, but they will have trained hard for at least a year before they ever enter a race.
It takes a team of humans to prepare these dogs for the rigorous life of a sled dog. Most kennels will have a team of trainers, working with dozens of dogs for years to find the 16 perfect athletes that will make up their team.
Over the years of work that the trainers will put in, they will identify the dogs that will make up the core positions on the team. First they must identify a “lead dog”, this dog is usually the smartest of the group and is capable of understanding the commands given out by the musher. Next they will find the strongest dogs, these will be placed near the back of the pack and will be responsible for most of the hard work. Then finally, they must find smaller dogs that will be the wheel dogs, these dogs are placed closest to the sled and must be smaller so the harnesses don’t rub them raw. When all the dogs are finally picked, they will train day in and day out to prepare for the race.
We have all heard the tales of human athletes eating big meals with massive calorie counts before a competition. But nothing compares to the amount of calories needed for a sled dog. Each dog may burn upwards to 14,000 calories a day, while on the trail. Just to put that in perspective, your typical house dog usually burns around 1000 calories a day. To fulfill the needed calorie count, mushers usually use raw foods such as salmon, chicken, beef fat, lamb, and elk. And just like human athletes the dogs are given a number of vitamins and supplements to help prevent the buildup of lactic acid and cramps.
This year’s Iditarod Sled Dog Race kicked off on March 3rd and will take 9 to 12 days to complete.